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Massive FRONT Triennial Art Exhibition Takes On Cultural Issues

Oberlin artist Johnny Coleman has turned a shuttered Cleveland church into a piece of art (David C. Barnett / ideastream)

Dozens of artists from around the world are creating work that will go on display across Northeast Ohio this summer.  Usually, major art shows are hosted by cultural capitals like New York, Paris and Berlin, but the FRONT International Triennial aims to change that.  This global group of sculptors, painters and photographers is creating commentaries about what it means to live in an American city.

Oberlin-based multimedia artist Johnny Coleman is turning an old, shuttered church in Cleveland’s Glenville neighborhood into a piece of art.  The city wouldn’t let him create his piece inside the decaying structure of St. Mark’s, so he set-up shop just outside the worn, oak doors of this gothic structure.  A couple of pews are positioned in front of a repurposed pulpit and, instead of a sermon, passersby will hear the recorded voices of community elders telling stories, such as Lewis Nunley.

I remember my next-door neighbor who they tore his house down a couple years ago; it’s a vacant lot now.  Mr. Robinson maintained an immaculate yard.  If your ball, your football, went in to his yard, you didn’t know if you were going to get it back or not. 

“What people shared with me was a lot of sorrow over what has been lost,” said Coleman.  “They talked about how much love they have for this place.  So, that’s what I’m reflecting on.”

Coleman is one of hundreds of artists from across the region and around the world creating works for the FRONT International Triennial,  a three-month exhibition taking place in Cleveland, Akron and Oberlin.  It’s modeled on the art biennials and triennials that are staged in global cultural centers.  FRONT artistic director Michelle Grabner thinks it’s an important to nudge the art world’s focus off of places like London, Venice and New York.

“There’s something that can happen outside of those centers.  Ideas that New York, for instance, can’t quite see,” Grabner said.

Chicago native Jessica Vaughn is part of the New York art scene, but her FRONT installation harkens back to her Midwestern roots as a little girl riding public transit to visit friends and to go to school.  She has arranged dozens of train seats in a grid-like pattern on a wall of the Akron Art Museum for her piece “After Willis (rubbed, used and moved).”

“‘After Willis…’ is a reference to the former superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, who in the late 60s refused to desegregate many of the schools in the city,” Vaughn said.

The FRONT exhibition is the brainchild of Northeast Ohio cultural leader Fred Bidwell, and he says each project is linked to a central theme: An American City. 

“Artists have responded to that so strongly, because they see that many of the political, economic, social, and racial issues that the world is talking about are all literally at the frontline here in Cleveland,” said Bidwell.

In addition to outdoor sculptures and gallery displays, the work of FRONT artists will be seen in a number of non-traditional settings, like Philip Vanderhyden’s use of 24 computer displays in a Federal Reserve Bank or Yinka Shonibare’s reflection on immigration through thousands of specially-made books on display at the Cleveland Public Library.  Cleveland Institute of Art president Grafton Nunes said Midwest institutions are much more open to collaboration on art events.

“I was in New York for 28 years, and I can tell you it doesn’t happen, or if it happens, it doesn’t happen easily and it costs an enormous amount of money,” Nunes said.

Adding to all of this creative activity, other Northeast Ohio artists are putting on their own exhibitions to make use of the international spotlight.  The Collective Arts Network (CAN) produced the CAN Triennial, on display during July.  And yet another group has organized what they are calling the “CAN’T” Triennial, billing it as “You can’t be rejected from CAN’T.”

FRONT’s Michelle Grabner thinks all of these perspectives will make for a stronger representation of local art to the rest of the world.

“I am really interested in how ethics and values are shaped in different regions, let alone cities,” Grabner said.  “We should ask ourselves what shapes those values.  Why is it different here, in the Great Lakes region or middle America versus that of the coasts?” 

In 1882, Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde gave a lecture in Cleveland about the need for Midwestern cities to develop their own artistic sensibilities and become part of the international art dialog. Over 130 years later, it looks like some Northeast Ohioans have that very goal in mind.

A City Club of Cleveland panel on FRONT, moderated by David C. Barnett, further explores what’s in store over the next three months of international art in Northeast Ohio.  You can hear it Thursday at 8:00 p.m. on 90.3​.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.